goal anxiety

I’ve come to realize I have a moderately dysfunctional relationship with goals.

(This applies to more than just writing, but writing offers a good, clear-cut illustration of what I mean.)

Let’s say I’m working on a novel and my goal is 1000 words a day. One evening, out of laziness, I write only 800. Or — more likely — I just don’t write at all. (If I put my butt in the chair, I tend not to leave until I have quota.) I treat that as a deficit I need to make up; I write 1200 words or 1500 words until I’m back where I would have been had I not been short one day.

This is moderately okay. Especially since I usually manage to cut myself some slack for occasions when something (like travel) takes me out of commission for several days at a stretch.

The dysfunctionality comes in when I write above quota. Take a recent example: I’m working on something where my weekly goal is 10K. Which means, in general, 1500 a day, with one day where I can cut back a bit and just do 1000. This past week, I wrote 1500 (and change) for a couple of days, and then 2K one day. I built up a surplus.

This does not get treated the way a deficit does — as slippage that should get averaged out.

No, instead my obsessive, goal-driven self tends to ignore all surpluses. Who cares that I’m more than 500 ahead; I should still write 1500 every day. Including that day that was supposed to be an easy 1000. Then I’d be a thousand ahead of where I meant to be! But don’t let that fool you into thinking I could do just 9K the next week. No, it’ll be 10K or bust, and if I can squeeze out more, than full steam ahead!

From the perspective of finishing books (or whatever else I might be working on), this seems pretty good. I’m beginning to notice, though, that it might be a little hard on me — it means I never earn a break. Any such break would have to be earned in advance, and once I’ve done that, I just keep pushing. More words written, more pages read, more cleaning done, whatever the task at hand is, I keep going. Until it’s done.

And then I look for something else to do.

My fiance is probably beating his head into a wall, having read this far; he’s a big advocate of me relaxing and not being so hard on myself. But he (and the rest of you) can take heart: I’ve made a baby step in mending my ways. Having built up a surplus earlier this writing week (which is, for uninteresting reasons having to do with this project, Thursday through Wednesday), I let myself cut back a bit for the last three days. I wrote over 1K each time, to hit my weekly goal, but didn’t make myself do 1500. Right now I’m sitting pretty at 53 words over target — in the middle of a scene, no less, which I decided to leave as a carrot for tomorrow, rather than finishing it tonight.

Mind you, I’ve got other things I need to get done, which is another argument for not driving myself to oblivion on one project only. But nevermind that.

Goals: they’re to be met, but not always exceeded.

0 Responses to “goal anxiety”

  1. mrissa


    This is why I’ve started taking Sundays off: to give myself a space where I can’t decide that all (writing) goals must be exceeded immediately.

  2. d_c_m

    Goals: they’re to be met, but not always exceeded.
    Good quote and definitely something to live by. 🙂

  3. moonandserpent

    Actually that doesn’t sound so weird. When I was doing tech writing professionally (i.e. the last time I could be counted on to do 1-2k per day) I was pretty much the same way.

  4. ladyhedgehog

    I do the exact same thing. It drives my husband all kinds of crazy. At least once a week, he feels compelled to lecture me on the meaning of the word, “average.”

  5. Anonymous

    This sounds familiar. Do you feel guilty when you take a break from writing, like I do?

    Just wondering if anyone else is having trouble explaining to people why it doesn’t feel ok to “not be writing.” 🙂

    C. Rooney

  6. diatryma

    Oh my yes. I’m trying to stop thinking that way, because it means I never get a break except by breaking the rules. If the only night off happens because I failed, it’s not a good night off.

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